My new novel, STRANGER CHILD, is due for release in Kindle format on 24th February – just nine days away. I thought you might like a sneak preview of the prologue.
Stranger Child – Prologue
Another ten minutes, and she would be safely home.
Caroline Joseph gave a shudder of relief that the long journey would soon be over. She never enjoyed driving at night and always felt slightly out of control. Each pair of approaching headlights seemed to draw her towards them, their white light illuminating the car’s interior as she gripped the steering wheel, struggling to point the car straight ahead.
Not long now, though. She was looking forward to giving Natasha a warm bath, a mug of hot chocolate, and tucking her up in bed. Then she could devote the remnants of the evening to David. Something was troubling him, and Caroline thought that maybe if they settled in front of the fire with a glass of wine when Natasha was asleep, she might be able to coax the problem out of him. It had to be something to do with work.
She glanced in her rear-view mirror at her precious daughter. Tasha was six – or six and three-quarters, as she liked to boast – although her slight frame made her appear younger. Her pale blonde hair fell in soft waves to her shoulders, and her delicate features were bathed intermittently in yellow light as they passed each streetlamp. Her eyes were closed, and Caroline smiled at how peaceful she looked.
Today Tasha had been her usual sweet-natured self, playing happily with her young cousins while the adults scurried around doing Caroline’s father’s bidding. He had issued one of his edicts – this time declaring that Caroline, along with her siblings and their families, must come for a pre-Christmas dinner. As usual, everybody had obeyed. Everybody, that is, except David.
The turnoff to the lanes leading to their house was fast approaching, and Caroline took a final glance at Natasha. Once they were off the main road and away from the brightly lit shop windows and the amber glow of the tall streetlamps, the back of the car would be in dark shadow. She had slept for most of the journey, but was beginning to stir.
‘You okay, Tasha?’ Caroline asked. The child just murmured in response, not quite awake enough to answer as she rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. Caroline smiled. She braked slightly and changed gear to take the turning. All she had to do was get through the last couple of miles of this journey along the narrow, hedge-lined lanes, deep in darkness, then she could relax. She felt a flash of irritation towards David. He knew she hated driving at night, and he could have made the effort – for Natasha, if not for her. They had both missed him today.
A sudden movement to her left caught Caroline’s eye, and her head spun towards it, her heart thumping in her chest. An owl swooped low over the hedgerows, its white breast catching the full beam of her headlights, bright against the black sky. She let out a breath.
There was no moon, and the black tarmac on the narrow lanes that led to their home was glinting with fragments of frost. Everything around her seemed perfectly still, as if the world had come to a stop, and now that the owl had fled she was the only thing still moving. Caroline knew that if she opened her window there would be no sound other than the quiet hum of her engine. There was no light at all ahead or behind, and for a moment her natural fear of the dark threatened to swamp her.
She leaned forwards and switched the radio on at a low volume, reassured by the jolliness of the predictable festive songs. She would be sick of the sound of them soon, but right now their cheery ordinariness relaxed her.
She smiled as the phone on the seat by her side started to ring. Certain that it would be David asking when she would be back, she barely glanced at the screen, but at the last moment she saw the call was from a blocked number. She prodded the screen and cancelled the call. Whoever it was could wait until she got home. She steered one-handed round a sharp bend as she placed the phone back on the seat, and the car slid a little on the frosty road. She felt a small jolt of fear. But the car held, and she breathed again.
Caroline took the next few bends cautiously, but her tense shoulders relaxed as she came to a brief stretch of straight road with tall hedgerows shielding deep ditches on either side. Caroline leaned closer to the windscreen, peering into the night. Her headlights were picking up a darker shadow – something in the lane ahead. She braked slightly and changed down a gear, slowing in anticipation.
She dropped down to second gear to approach the obstruction, finally recognising in horror that it was a car, slewed sideways across the road, its front wheels buried in the ditch on the right-hand side of the road. She thought she could see a shadow inside, as if somebody was slumped over the steering wheel.
As Caroline crawled slowly towards it, her heart suddenly thumping, she pushed the button to lower her window. It looked like somebody needed help.
The phone rang again.
Her first thought was to ignore it, but if there had been an accident she might need to summon assistance. She snatched the phone off the seat and answered the call, realising as she did so that her hand was shaking.
‘Caroline, are you home yet?’
It was a voice she vaguely recognised, but couldn’t quite place. Her eyes did not leave the obstruction ahead as she drew to a halt and released her seatbelt.
‘Not yet. Why? Who is this?’
‘Just listen to me. Whatever you do, you must not stop the car. Whatever happens, do not under any circumstances stop the car.’ The man was speaking low and fast. ‘Go home. Go straight home. Are you listening to me?’
The panic in the voice on the phone reflected Caroline’s own rising anxiety. She hesitated.
‘But there’s a car across the road, and it looks like somebody’s in it. Maybe they’re ill, or they’ve had an accident. Why can’t I stop? What’s going on?’
‘Just do as I’m telling you, Caroline. Do not get out of the car. Put your foot down now and get past that car and don’t stop again for anybody or anything. Just do it.’
The voice was tense, urgent. Caroline felt fear rise in her throat. What was this? She glanced in the rear-view mirror, and made her decision. She flung the mobile phone onto the seat beside her and grabbed the steering wheel with both hands. The stationary car was long and low, taking up most of the width of the road with its back wheels slightly off the ground as the bonnet angled down into the ditch. There wasn’t much space to get round the boot of the car, but she could do it. She had to do it.
She rammed her foot hard to the floor. The tyres skidded on the frosty road, but they gripped, and she swung the car to the left. Her nearside wheels rose up on the bank below the hedge and the car hovered at a perilous angle. She pulled the steering wheel back round to the right and her car landed with a bump, facing the opposite side of the road. Caroline pulled the wheel back round to the left to straighten up, the engine roaring as she accelerated.
Suddenly she felt herself begin to slide. She spun the steering wheel madly in one direction and then the other, but whatever she did, the car took no notice. Black ice, and she was travelling too fast. She remembered being told to steer into a skid, but that didn’t feel right.
A name flashed into her head. She suddenly realised who had called her. But why him? She called out his name, but she knew that by then there was nothing he could do. Her eyes were drawn to the mirror, to the shadowy rear of the car, where all she could see were the whites of Natasha’s wide, terrified eyes.
She slammed her foot on the brakes, but nothing happened. The car slid sideways, hit the bank again, rose up at an angle and flipped, turning over and over, crashing through the hedge and into the ditch, Caroline’s broken body coming to rest half in and half out of the open window.
The policeman drove along the narrow lanes, enjoying a rare moment of peace in the run-up to Christmas. An anonymous caller had phoned to say there was a car off the road somewhere around here, but according to the dispatcher the caller hadn’t been able to give any details. The policeman was hoping this would be nothing more than some idiot dumping his car because it had run out of juice or broken down. He had had enough of dealing with drunks in the current party season, and a nice little abandoned vehicle should keep him out of the way for a while – maybe even to the end of his shift.
The realisation that his optimism was unfounded crept up on him slowly. It was the lights that convinced him. Nobody dumped their car with the lights on, and yet up ahead he could see a stationary white light, shining brightly, illuminating the bare trees at the side of the road. As he got closer, the dazzling beams from the twin headlights blinded him. He shielded his eyes slightly with the back of his hand, approaching as cautiously as possible in case there was a body he couldn’t see lying in the road. He pulled up about twenty metres from the car and switched off his engine.
He knew immediately that it was bad. The car was upside down, the front end resting up the bank at one side of the lane. But it was the noise that chilled him. Cutting through the silence of the surrounding countryside, the gentle purr of an expensive engine provided a subtle backing track to the unmistakable sound of Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. The mellow music was escaping into the frosty night air from an open window through which jutted a woman’s head at such an implausible angle that the policeman didn’t need to approach the car to know she was dead.
He moved slowly towards the upended car to turn off the engine, and with it the music. He was able to breathe again. Now it was just a single-vehicle road traffic accident, although a tragic one. He reached for his radio.
While he waited for the paramedics to arrive, knowing that there was nothing they could do other than confirm what he already knew, the policeman organised the closing of the road, called for the specialist team to investigate the crash and asked for a PNC check on the car to determine ownership. He grabbed a powerful torch from his boot and shone it around the lane, in the ditches, along the bank, searching for anybody who might have crawled out of the car and could be injured, or anything on the road that could have caused the car to swerve. There was nothing. The road was empty.
For the policeman, it was a relief when the silence was disturbed by the sound of sirens, growing ever nearer, and a few minutes later the ambulance pulled up, its lights picking out a lone cyclist who was approaching the scene hesitantly.
The man hopped off his bike and stood some distance away. The policeman walked towards him.
‘I’m sorry, sir – you need to keep back.’
‘Okay, officer. I’m just trying to get home.’
‘I understand, but I can’t let you along this stretch of road at the moment, sir. I’m sure you appreciate that.’
‘Is anybody hurt? That looks like Caroline Joseph’s car. Am I right?’ the cyclist asked.
‘I can’t confirm that at the moment, sir.’
The man peered around the policeman to get a better look at the car.
‘Is that her I can see? Oh my God. She’s dead, isn’t she?’ He looked at the policeman, his mouth half open in shock. ‘Poor David. That’s her husband. He’s going to be devastated.’
The policeman didn’t comment. All he could do was keep the man as far away as possible until reinforcements arrived, but even from this distance the woman’s head was all too visible.
‘She didn’t have Natasha with her, did she?’ the cyclist asked, his voice shaking. ‘Her little girl? Cutest kid.’
The policeman shook his head with some relief.
‘No, sir. The child seat is in the back but thankfully it’s empty. There was nobody else in the car.’
STRANGER CHILD will be published on Amazon on 24th February 2014.
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The prologue of Rachel Abbott’s new thriller #StrangerChild is now available on her blog http://wp.me/p4Ve8g-oN CLICK TO TWEET
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